February 18, 2011

Year Two of Tierney's Denver Experiment Begins Sunday at Syracuse

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Things are a little more stable for Bill Tierney than they were a year earlier.

How could they not be?

The veteran coach debuted at Denver 12 months ago, inheriting a program that briefly dipped below two dozen players. It promptly was humbled in the season's opening weekend, then rallied to finish 12-5 and earn the third NCAA tournament berth in Pioneers history.

Never mind that it ended with a loss at Stony Brook. Never mind that Dillon Roy, the team leader in ground balls, caused turnovers and faceoff percentage, is gone.

The ground is just a bit firmer for the defending ECAC champions and their Hall of Fame coach.

"It was like a whirlwind," Tierney said. "Now, I feel like I'm on a regular course."

Of course, there is a tough part -- duplicating last year's success going forward.

Tierney relishes such a challenge in his second act as a Division I coach. The accolades from the stint at Princeton -- including the six national titles -- are well-known. But building another program, this one two time zones away, held substantial appeal.

It still does, even if the Pioneers are in a different place than 12 months ago. Sure, Denver had brief NCAA appearances in 2006 and 2008 to its name. But expectations were modest and fell even further after a 1-3 start.

This year, with much of last year's team back and a home-field edge for the ECAC tournament, the Pioneers will be looked upon to be a conference favorite from the start of the season.

"I think we could be unrealistically confident," Tierney said. "We've got a talented group of 12 offensive players that I feel can really be good. Of those, seven or eight are returning guys that had a lot of success scoring goals. What we all forget is we were held down in a couple games by the better teams. That's who we have to beat moving forward."

And Tierney will find out soon enough how the Pioneers compare to such teams. Syracuse (on Sunday) and Notre Dame are notable early opponents, and Denver also makes a mid-March visit to Loyola for a crucial ECAC game.

Naturally, much of Denver's progress will be measured in May, just as it was a year ago. But Tierney, who knows how difficult it is to nurture a program, is the first to acknowledge the Pioneers still have a long way to go.

"I think expectations for a rapid rise to the next level can be somewhat unrealistic," Tierney said. "Getting to that quarterfinal or final four level is ridiculously hard. I say that with all the experience from Princeton."

In the long term, much of it will stem from Tierney's recruiting pitch, one he said is well received so far. Much of that comes from trying to target the right players, the sort who will buy into the philosophy Tierney and his staff espouse.

"I found it extremely exciting and easy, to be honest," Tierney said. "It's not easy in that we don't have 20 top-20 players coming to the University of Denver, but it is easy in that we do have scholarships, we have a beautiful place, and as my assistants say, 'If we can get them on a plane, we can get them.'"

The first whirlwind is done. The next one is about to start. And while there is promise in the present, after a year on the job, Tierney is more sure than ever the future will be especially bright.


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